Experts estimate that thousands of coronaviruses, many of which have yet to be discovered, are present in bats.
Researchers from the Smithsonian Institute’s Global Health Program have discovered six new bat coronaviruses in Myanmar, the first time that these viruses have been detected anywhere in the world. According to the authors, the newly discovered coronaviruses are not closely related to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS CoV-1), Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), or SARS-CoV-2, the latter causing the coronavirus disease COVID-19.
The findings, published in PLOS ONE, will help understand the diversity of coronaviruses in bats and inform global efforts to detect, prevent, and respond to infectious diseases that can threaten public health, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic against which the world is fighting.
“Viral pandemics remind us how closely human health is connected to the health of wildlife and the environment,” explained Marc Valitutto, a former wildlife veterinarian with the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program and lead author of the study.
“Worldwide, humans are interacting with wildlife with increasing frequency, so the more we understand about these viruses in animals—what allows them to mutate and how they spread to other species––the better we can reduce their pandemic potential.”
The new coronaviruses were stated by reaches whip were bio-monitoring animals to better understand the circumstances of disease spread as part of the PREDICT project.
The Initiative is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). PREDICT supports the global discovery and monitoring of pathogens that have the potential to spread from animals to humans.
The team focused their research on sites in Myanmar where humans are more likely to come into close contact with local wildlife due to changes in land use and development.
From May 2016 to August 2018, they collected more than 750 samples of bat saliva and feces in these areas. Experts estimate that thousands of coronaviruses, many of which have yet to be discovered, are present in bats. The researchers tested and compared the samples with known coronaviruses and identified six new coronaviruses for the first time. The team also detected a coronavirus that had been found in other parts of Southeast Asia, but never before in Myanmar.
The scientists note that the new discoveries underscore the importance of surveillance for zoonotic disease as they occur in wildlife. The results will also guide future surveillance of bat populations to better detect potential viral threats to public health.
“Many coronaviruses may not pose a risk to people, but when we identify these diseases early on in animals, at the source, we have a valuable opportunity to investigate the potential threat,” revealed Suzan Murray, director of the Smithsonian’s Global Health Program and co-author of the study.
“Vigilant surveillance, research and education are the best tools we have to prevent pandemics before they occur.”
The PREDICT team in Myanmar is made up of scientists from the Smithsonian; the University of California, Davis; Myanmar Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Irrigation; Myanmar Ministry of Health and Sports; and the Myanmar Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.